For Andre Malraux, museums were meant to lift objects out of their specific identity and time and enclose them in semi-eternal rooms and galleries "between the absolute world of God and the ephemeral world of man," where the portrait of the Duke of Olivares becomes a painting by Velasquez.
The Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture lumbered to life here last night in a defiant challenge both to the dictum of the late French minister of culture and the cries of outrage its extravagant and provocative architecture has already produced.
Rising out of a Paris slum like a giant, expensive mechanical toy that has gone berserk and taken over two city blocks, the Pompidou Center glorifies the Machine Age. it is in itself a machine of the late 20th century more than a museum to house the art of today and inspire the creations of the future.
President Pompidou proposed that double mission for an arts center in 1972, two years before his death, in hopes that the cultural palace would help Paris regain the dominant position it once held in the art world.
The modern art museum that is the heart of the complex does well in showing off the modest collection of 20th-century art that successive French governments have acquired, usually without any great enthusiasm.
But at its birth the center seems to be entering a future already overtaken. Its esthetics, economics and environment are a final statement on an era of faith in unlimited growth, technological benevolence and social consensus.
About 5,000 guests drawn from France's arts bureaucracy, its political class and le tout Paris turned out last night for the formal opening of the center presided over by Pompidou's successor, Presidetn Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Swept in by limousine past the demolished meat and vegetable markets that formed Zola's "belly of Paris," Les Halles, Princess Grace of Monaco, gen. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Senegal's Leopold Senghor and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg were among a varied cast of foreign leaders on hand to help Giscard celebrate the opening.
They sat beneath banks of blazing lights that cast dazzling images through the glass walls and over the polished steel struts that crisscross the center's facade like an erector set and out onto the dark, dank side streets of a rundown Paris quarter.
The center, its 180,000 square feet distributed across six floors, stands midway between Les Halles and Le Marais on a small plateau known as Beaubourg, an ironic comment on the seedy, dank and low-cost housing of this area, a five-minute walk northeast of the Chatelet intersection on the right bank of the Seine.
The $200-million project, which will take $28 million a year to operate, is intended to help shift the center of gravity of Paris away from the Champs Elysses and Opera area to Les Halles, the true geographic center of the city.
Last night's glittering inauguration brought a churning, wild finish to the relatively brief but often painful gestation of the Pompidou center, which has been accused by French critics of being an "architectural King Kong."
In a rare crisp morning for a Paris winter, Algerian workers were spreading warm tar across muddy walkways around the center. Trucks shuttled back and forth to bring fresh sand in and take trash out.
Across a walkway, the claw of an earth excavating machine thrust into the shambles of buildings being torn down to make way for the art galleries and modern apartment buildings that are following the Pompidou center into Beaubourg.
The claw raised the ashes of the past out of the shattered apartment units as final tests were made on the futuristic escalator that snakes its way through glass tubes that enclose it up the west facade of the arts center.
The east facade is a forest of smoke-stacks, on leave from their ocean liners, and other pieces and tubes painted in enamel, white and primary red, blue and green hues.
These are the entrails of most buildings - the hearing, air-conditioning, water and electrical systems. Bit the center's architects, Italy's Renzo Piano and England's Richard Rogers, have externalized those systems to leave the Pompidou Center's interior free wheeling and open.
The center's playful nature, to be enhanced by a permanent circus and Jean tinguely mobiles on the piazza, has not assauged the fears of the neighborhood's residents, who recall that Pompidou was a patron of real estate speculation as well as art.
"It won't stay white long in this quarter," a woman fruit seller said standing at the bar of Chez Robert yesterday morning and, like her neighbors, glaring balefully out at the center.
"No madam," said Robert, rubbing a towel along the metal bar counter, it is the quarter that will not stay long now."
Spread across 35 rooms formed by movable walls that can be shuffled in endless combinations are the 1,800 paintings that form the permanent collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, formerly housed in undersized and temporary quarters near rious one in Paris; a small movie house where film classics will be shown; a music research center headed by Pierre Boulez; a small theater, where a new play by Eugene Ionesco was staged last night; and an industrial design center intended to emphasize man's relationship to the tools and machines around him.
There is space for temporary exhibitions, and the first one is a Marcel Duchamps retrospective, a deliciously ironic choice for the opening of France's effort to regain leadership in the international art world.
The retrospective of works by the last giant in French painting is the first one every organized in France. It was put together by Pontus Hulten, the Swede who heads the center's museum, and assembled almost entirely the Trocadero. The earliest date from 1905.
Also united at Beaubourga are a 350000-volume public library, the first esfrom collections in the United States.
Hulten calls Duchamps' work "misunderstood and even unknown in his own country," which has been a desert for the past three decades in modern art. The rebuilding from World War II and the consumerism boom of the Common Market absorbed national energy and concentration.
"Georges Pompidou wanted to open a temple for Paris," Giscard said last night. "Our era, like all others, should mark its place" in time with a grand monument, the president said in his speech.
The money and energy-gobbling machine-like Beaubourg Center appeared just three years ago to be a good candidate for such a role. Now, it recalls another 20-year-old observation of Andre Malraux: We cannot overcome the banal truth that for a man of the 13th century, gothic was modern."